Food shopping in Spain

There are not many markets left to enjoy this food shopping experience.

Although most cities have big supermarkets and large shopping malls, still are a few traditional markets and specialty shops left.

Food shopping in a Spanish market

Most cities and towns of some size have a large open-air market with a roof, but no walls, to protect it from the blazing sun. "La Boquería" in Barcelona is very popular. Every district in Madrid has its own market; Chamartín market is a favorite.

Many food markets are being transformed into food courts.

At the market, merchants compete for shoppers' attention, often very vocally, surrounded by pyramids built with red tomatoes, green lettuces, purple eggplants, red apples, yellow bananas and any produce you could imagine.

Every stall has usually a specialty, some will deal with fruit, other vegetables, nuts and seed, a butcher, cheese, fish, poultry.

Chickens and many kinds of fish are sold unprepared, still with feathers, scales, eyes, and tails and the attendant will prepare them for you in the spot. Not so many years ago, before the modern food safety standards and rules were issued, in smaller towns chickens were so unprepared that they were sold still alive; killing them in front of you eyes was another step more in the preparation. That way, merchants would prove to customers that their poultry was very fresh.

Chicken and pork are probably the two types of meat consumed more often. Lamb is very much appreciated. There is very good quality beef, but as there is no large pasture land, there is no much of it.

You will probably find several stands selling fish. Fish and seafood is mainstay in the Spanish diet -probably Japan is the only country to consume more fish than Spain- and you will not see again so much variety in a single shop, from tiny to giant shrimp and lobster. From flat sole to tuna steaks or monk fish tails. The catch of the day is trucked daily, even to central areas.

At the market, you choose how much you want to buy. Opposed to the pre-packaged food from the grocery store, including olive oil; in some places, you would be able to refill your own container.

You can buy parsley at the big grocery store but at the market, it is usually included as a gift in every stand you visit, including the butcher.

Spaniards still prefer to buy little and often, almost daily.

La Boquería, Barcelona

La Boqueria, Mercat de Sant Josep, St. Joseph's Market.... Whatever name you use to describe it the sights and smells will be the same. This bustling conglomeration of food stalls, restaurants and tapas bars is one of Barcelona's most often visited attractions. That last fact is all the more interesting since relatively few tourists seek fresh produce on their wanderings. But here one can find that and a great deal more.

Set in a structure built in 1840 La Boqueria is an artistic treasure as well as a culinary one. The sign itself above the entrance, a fine Catalonian example of Art Nouveau, is well worth a look. The glass and iron enclosure comprises (and partially hides) a 19th century building that shares much with its cousins throughout the city. Aspects of the market are still being re-discovered. Several Ionic-style columns were only uncovered in 2001 after a long absence.

But the art on display resides as much in what is sold there as where it is sold. The endless palette of colors formed by artichokes, oranges, carrots, ham and fish of all description requires a photograph (or, better still, a visit) to truly convey. If you're looking for an afternoon snack, a drink or just a fascinating look at the best market in Europe, you could find none finer.

Anyone wanting to wander through La Boqueria has a number of options. Seen from above it would resemble a hub with spokes.

At the center are the fish sellers who offer an array of local species so fresh some of them are still wiggling. Barcelona is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Wander in any direction and you'll run into mushroom stalls offering some of the world's finest truffles. Move one way and you'll see the juiciest cherries to be found anywhere on the continent. Stroll the other way and you'll come upon zucchini so fresh the blossoms are still attached.

Set around the perimeter are a number of great bars and restaurants. The Pinotxo (Pinocchio) is famed for its wide selection of drinks, its excellent tapas and its extraordinary collection of bar stools. Don't miss seeing the ceramic portrait of the famed marionette character displayed there.

The El Quim de la Boqueria is another superb option. In a city full of outstanding tapas bars, El Quim stands near the pinnacle. The bar is full of great food, lively customers and sports a happy atmosphere. Locals often enjoy the fresh squid for breakfast.

The exterior of the market provides several interesting sights as well. Just outside the entrance are animal stalls that sell birds, lizards and other small pets.

La Boqueria is about halfway between Carrer del Carme and Carrer de l'Hospital, close to the Liceu metro stop. It's not far from the famed cathedral, La Seu, in the center of Barri Gotic (the Gothic Quarter). St. Joseph's Market is open from early in the morning until late in the evening, but the liveliest times are in the afternoon.